Film Pro Has A New Game Plan His Life's Taken On A New Focus Sports Cameraman Is Shooting Stars

Posted: January 25, 1993

When Super Bowl XXVII unfolds on Sunday in Pasadena, NFL Films cameraman Phil Tuckett will train his lens on the game, as he has every year since Super Bowl IV. Nothing new about that.

But when halftime arrives, Tuckett - a former wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers - will slip into a relatively new role, that of music video director. He'll direct the camera crews filming Michael Jackson's halftime show for a "Heal the World" documentary to air later this year.

You might say that Tuckett, 46, plays both ways for NFL Films: football and non-football.

Two years ago, he convinced Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son founders of Mount Laurel, N.J.-based NFL Films, to start NFL Entertainment, a division that would shoot rock videos, commercials and news documentaries.

It took some doing, even though Tuckett has won 14 Emmy Awards for his work on football projects during 23 years with the company.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of his job had been matching music to the highly stylized game footage that is NFL Films' signature.

"I forced the issue because, number one, I was going crazy doing nothing but football, and number two, I thought, 'Look, we have all this 4p7great equipment, and we have facilities that are second to none, and we have people that can shoot, and then for six months of the year they sort of sit around and look at each other.' "

Initially, Ed Sabol expressed concerns about getting involved with "creeps and freaks." Steve Sabol has gone on record as saying his all-time favorite song is "Rama Lama Ding Dong." They were finally persuaded by Tuckett, whose musical tastes run from classical to country to experimental jazz. (On this morning, a Public Enemy cassette rested on his desk next to The Official NFL Record and Fact Book. Behind him was a framed portrait of George Harrison inscribed, "To Phil.")

"My point was, 'Let's maximize our potential. Let's take what you do in football and make that application in these other fields.' "

That's how Tuckett went from director of field operations for NFL Films to head of NFL Entertainment. He has produced visuals for George Harrison, Cyndi Lauper, The Black Crowes, Billy Squier, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mike Reid.

His most ambitious project to date - and one that promises to shower him with broadcast industry awards this spring - was the haunting "Munich Revisited," a look back on the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Olympics. The 50-minute piece, commissioned by NBC, aired during the Summer Olympics last year.

What makes Tuckett's achievements even more remarkable is that he had no photographic experience when he joined NFL Films 23 years ago.

At the time, he was earning $400 a week on the Chargers' taxi squad; $1,000 a week when the team activated him. In the off-season, he painted houses, worked construction, did stints as a substitute teacher and wrote for a small San Diego newspaper.

"I certainly didn't have any background in filmmaking or photography at that time. My background was in writing. I had a B.A. in English (from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah). As far as I knew, I would write scripts, and that would be it.

"Then when I got here, Ed Sabol said, 'Listen, we didn't hire you just as a writer. We want you to edit, and shoot a camera someday.' In other words, I'd do the same work as everyone else there."

Tuckett's entree to the job was a diary of his first training camp that was published in Sport magazine. He gritted out two seasons with the Chargers, but his third training camp looked like his last. Sabol just happened to be visiting . . .

"I just walked up very boldly and brazenly and introduced myself and showed him that article. He was intrigued by the idea of having someone who had actually played pro football."

When Tuckett was summoned to turn in his playbook, "I called my wife and called Ed Sabol . . . I called my wife to come pick me up, and Ed Sabol to see if he would hire me. And they both said yes."

When Tuckett arrived in Philadelphia, where NFL Films was then based, "I had to lend him two shirts," Sabol recalled. "He was broke, and he was my


"Talk about a workaholic - this kid never stopped working . . . He never knew anything about cinematography. He taught himself, learned how to edit and work a camera, and became our No. 1 photographer. He had an energy and enthusiasm that was difficult to find in young people at that time."

Tuckett quickly grew to love filmmaking more than football. Above all, he relished shooting in the harshest weather conditions because of their potential for dramatic visuals.

"I get teased about this by people here because I always look forward to terrible weather. Because to me, that's the romance of the game. Domed stadiums are the worst thing that ever happened to football. Rain and cold and snow and fog, and all the other conditions, make football unique. You play no matter what the weather.

"So I took that same mentality when I started shooting games as a cameraman. I would ask to be sent to Green Bay in December, asked to be sent to the worst possible weather conditions. And then I became director of field operations, and I would assign myself to those games. People just thought I was nuts, or that I had a machochist streak, or that there was something wrong with me. I was the guy who would go and get those shots, those slow motion shots of the feet splashing through the puddles, and the snowflakes in the air, and I just figured, for three hours, you can suffer a little bit. It's no big deal.

"There's never been a game where I went out that I thought, oh boy, I have to stand out in THIS?"

That kind of tolerance has landed Tuckett in some odd places at odd times. He once spent Thanksgiving in Nome, Alaska, shooting Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod sled dog race.

"Yeah, one night it got down to about 10 below. But we've shot football games colder than that," Tuckett recalled.

Tuckett said one thing he's learned from doing music videos is the importance of giving equal weight to visuals and music. "Everything I do in football is better now than it would have been if I hadn't gotten involved in music videos," he said.

Winning all those Emmys hasn't gone to Tuckett's head. Judy Tuckett, his wife of 27 years and production assistant, recalled that she found one clunking around in the back seat of the family car a few years ago. It was in one of Phil's gym bags.

"I take (the Emmys) for granted to a certain degree because I know that I get them through my association with this organization and this great production unit that we've created," he said.

Because it would be "tacky" to display all 14 of them together, he keeps ''two or three" at home. He's given one to each of his three children, one to his father, and one to his mother-in-law; the rest are at the NFL Films office.

In addition to shooting the game and monitoring Jackson's performance on Sunday, Tuckett will contribute two 4-minute sound pieces to NBC's pregame show. He's also helped create the dazzling film visuals viewers will see in the last 30 seconds leading up to game time - visuals so intricate he's spent seven weeks working on them.

Once his Super Bowl work is done, Tuckett's next project is shooting a concert video of The Black Crowes in Houston on Feb. 6. Earlier this football season, he shot a live performance of British guitarists George Harrison and Gary Moore at Royal Albert Hall in London.

"That's when I knew that NFL Entertainment had come of age," he said, ''because Steve Sabol promised me that whatever I needed in terms of resources and people and cameramen, the football season wouldn't change that. So that was the true test.

"Third week of the football season, I had our three best cameramen and myself at Royal Albert Hall in London. And we looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, NFL Entertainment is here to stay.' "